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November 19, 2008

UK Minister’s vision for Democracy

In a recent speech Hazel Blears, the UK Minister for Communities, ended with a clear vision of a decentralised, democratic state – as reflected in her white paper `Communities in Control`. Whether or not her aspirations are fully realised, this is the kind of vision that we need our politicians to start articulating

Hazel Blears

Hazel Blears` Speech to Hansard Society
November 2008

My white paper ‘Communities in Control’ contains the central argument for a redistribution of power, and for a flowering of new ways of political participation, including on-line, but also through a revived local government and greater control over local services.

If you’ve read the white paper you’ll know I make it clear that it is merely the staging post on a longer, further-reaching journey of democratisation of the British state.

I agree with the Prime Minister when he told the NCVO last year:

‘I want to see a vibrant reformed local democracy, from neighbourhood level engagement, community calls to action, a renewed focus on the devolution of powers and responsibilities to local government, the accountability of our police, our healthcare services to their communities. In this way people can connect neighbourhood meetings, local ballots and elections and new forms of community action for decision making and the exercise of power over issues they care about in their daily lives.’

We need a devolved state, with democracy a daily activity, not a once every five years cross in a box.

The modern state must therefore be devolved, decentralised, and dedicated to giving people the power to take on an increasing share of the responsibility for their own lives, and authorship of their own destinies.

This creates challenges because people, groups and institutions with power are seldom pleased to relinquish it. You can hear echoes of the men who opposed the extension of the franchise, or votes for women, in those voices who today argue that people cannot be trusted to use power wisely.

But we have our own echoes. We have Tom Paine, Robert Owen, William Morris and GDH Cole. Within the British socialist tradition is a rich vein of advocacy of self-government, bottom-up campaigning, workers’ control and co-operation which stands in relief to the tendency of mid-twentieth century socialists who placed their faith in monolithic national institutions, administered by benign bureaucracies.

Increasingly, modern society, in all its variegation, granularity and complexity, is best served by a decentralised, democratic state, and public services best run from the bottom up. The days of the centralised state, even in this unlikely age of nationalised banks, are numbered!

We are experiencing an explosion of information, technology and communications. When Labour was first elected no-one had seen facebook, heard an i-pod, or used Google. A computer sat in an office, a phone on a desk.

Today, people expect to be in control. They expect choice as standard. They expect personalisation in every aspect of their lives, from the music they listen to, to the healthcare they receive.

So a state which can only supply one-size-fits-all products and services, which has no entry-points for the citizen is doomed to fail to meet the rising expectation of its population.

So to conclude, for all the problems our politics faces, we have the solutions if we address the three-Ps of political culture, people and power.

It will take some tough choices and strong leadership, especially when it comes to giving power away. But I remain confident in the capacity of the British people for self-determination and self-government, in our political culture to be rescued from cynicism, and therefore in the prospect of Britain to continue its journey towards popular democracy.

Thank you for listening.”